For followers of NBC’s The Office, revelling in the oh-so-true parallels between their own workplace and that commanded by Steve Carrell’s Michael Scott character begs humour because of the mockumentary-style exaggeration on everyday events.
But for those who guffawed at one episode’s representation of the boss gaining access to employee e-mail better take a second look. Chances are, it’s happening in your workplace, too. If you’re not careful, forwarding that cheeky photograph of Hilary Clinton superimposed on a naked bust could mean your job is on the line.
Nearly one third of companies have disciplined employees for improperly using their e-mail while on the job. That number might not be as telling, however, as those produced in a recent survey by the American Management Association.
It found 75 per cent of employers track their subordinates’ online activity while half go so far as to read workers’ e-mails.
Ruth Haag has plenty of experience when it comes to how employees tend toward personal use of company time. She is the CEO of Haag Environmental Company and the author of a number of management related books including Hiring and Firing. According to her, the problem with e-mail and the Internet in the workplace is its informal nature.
“With e-mail, anybody can send one out so a lot of businesses don’t have any consistency requirements and they end up being incredibly casual,” she says.
E-mail is distanced from the days of the business letter or telephone call, says Haag, which both had specific company-dictated formatting to ensure a professional appearance for the company.
Haag explains improper use of e-mail is outside of a worker’s rights because of who owns the medium they’re working on. “You’re using a company-provided computer and a company-paid-for Internet service. Technically, the company owns all that.”
She also notes it more often than not violates a company’s e-mail policy, which she says employees are just beginning to become aware of.
While employers may have the right to monitor employees, however, Haag says that should not hinder workers from taking time out for themselves while on the clock. “I do personal work on my company computer. We allow that. I find that makes people more efficient because they get that little bit of personal stuff done and then they’re getting back to work.”